The University of North Carolina men’s basketball team was expected to spend the final week of March preparing for the Final Four. Instead, the Tar Heels and their fans weren’t even done absorbing top-seeded North Carolina’s 80-67 loss to second-seeded Kansas in the Midwest Regional Final on March 25 when the program received another dose of bad news: Three underclassmen starters — forwards Harrison Barnes and John Henson and guard Kendall Marshall — announced on March 29 that they intended to declare for the NBA Draft.
The way major college basketball is structured these days, though, Tar Heels fans will have a far easier time getting over the mass exits than they will the loss to Kansas — and will likely be just as excited to see a mostly new team take the court next season as they would if North Carolina returned everyone.
This is the third time in eight seasons that the Tar Heels have lost multiple starters from a team that advanced deep into the NCAA Tournament. The Tar Heels lost their top seven scorers — including four underclassmen — after they won the 2005 national title. And the top four scorers — including two underclassmen — departed after the program’s most recent national title in 2009. Head coach Roy Williams has to replace four starters this time around as well since senior Tyler Zeller has exhausted his eligibility.
Williams’ track record suggest he’ll land the recruits that are necessary to allow the Tar Heels to once again quickly contend for college basketball’s big prize: This year marked the fifth time in the last seven years that North Carolina got as far as the regional final (i.e. the Elite Eight) of the NCAA tournament.
“They’re like a six-shooter, man,” TicketCity CEO Randy Cohen told TicketNews on March 30. “They just keep reloading.”
And North Carolina fans just keep walking through the turnstiles of the Dean E. Smith Center, which is better known as the “Dean Dome.” According to the Tar Heels’ 2011-12 yearbook, the team ranked in the top five in attendance nationally in 24 of the previous 25 seasons.
It doesn’t hurt, of course, that the Tar Heels have spent a whole lot of time in that span as a top-five program. Over the last 27 seasons, North Carolina has reinforced its status as a perennially elite program by making 18 appearances in the Sweet Sixteen, reaching the Final Four nine times and winning three national championships.
“UNC and Kentucky for sure, and then there’s Louisville and Indiana — they’re college basketball programs, not college football programs,” Cohen said. “They just have a habit of getting great players. It doesn’t matter, they’re loaded and they’re very strategic in what they do over there.”
The Tar Heels will almost certainly make it 25 out of 26 seasons in the nation’s top five in attendance. According to the game notes produced by North Carolina prior to the Kansas game, the Tar Heels played to an average crowd of 20,159 in 18 home games this season at the 21,750-seat Smith Center. Overall, per North Carolina’s figures, more than 7.6 million fans have seen the Tar Heels at the Smith Center since it opened during the 1985-86 season.